What Happens When Local Public Safety Can Use Wireless Emergency Alerts?

Wireless Emergency Alerts are becoming big news.  This is because the public is starting to receive them more and more frequently.

Just get on Twitter and search for “emergency alerts” or “emergency notification”.  You’ll get hundreds of hits, including many from people who’ve been scared out of their wits by some of the sounds coming form their phones.

But we’ve only just begun.  Most of the alerts so far are from the National Weather Service or are Amber Alerts about missing kids.

Under the FEMA program by which these alerts are being sent, local police, 911 and other agencies can sound out alerts too. And while the rules require that these agencies only use the alerts when there is imminent threat of loss of life or property, that can be a pretty low bar.

We’ve been compiling a list of all the ways that emergency notification systems get used today and it’s surprisingly long.   Here’s a sample:

  • Wild, poisonous or rabid animals on the loose;
  • Criminal activity, either active (shooter on the loose) or a recent pattern;
  • Weather hazards, including tornadoes, thunderstorms, heat waves, blizzards, extreme cold and their effects;
  • Environmental hazards, including chemical, fuel, and explosive releases;
  • Public health risks, such as contagious diseases;
  • Utility problems, including downed power lines and contaminated water.

This isn’t a complete list.  So far, we’ve compiled 136 specific types of emergencies that have resulted in some kind of notification, of which we think about 75+/- would qualify as a potential imminent threat.

We’ll bravely predict that some agencies will overuse the WEA capability and others will be reluctant to send out messages even when they are warranted.

So far, less than 5% of the nation’s counties and less than 1% of cities have applied for permission to use the system.  It will be interesting to see what happens as that number grows.




Another reason the shift to “wireless only” will keep on moving

An article in yesterday’s NY Times shows why landlines will continue to dwindle and mobile phones take their place.

Although people are willing to put up with the comparatively poor quality of mobile phones, this article shows three ways that mobile quality is improving:

1) Getting a better signal.

There are two options here.  The major carriers all offer a  way to get what is effectively a cell phone signal using your broadband connect.  Or you can buy a signal booster that works for multiple carriers.

2) Higher quality voice.

There something coming called HD Voice.  It’s already available for some phones, but will only really add value when lots of phones and carriers are using it.  And that’s coming, though perhaps not till 2015 or so.

3) Cheat.

You can route your cell phone calls to your landline phone.  Of course, lots of people don’t have a landline phone (and that’s the issue we’re dealing with at Hyper-Reach), but we’re guessing that the same routing approach can work with a Skype number or Google voice.

The point here is that as people keep shifting toward mobile and away from landlines, there will be an increasing number of solutions to objections of the folks who are holding out.  They may not address everyone’s concerns (landlines are still much more reliable), but for emergency notification services, the shift to “mobile only” doesn’t have to be 100% to be a crisis.


A Normal Person’s Explanation for Emergency Alerts on Your Phone

Is this you?

  • “I just got an emergency notification.. What??”
  • “An amber alert just set my phone off and I honestly thought the world was ending.”
  • “Anyone else get the terrifying amber alert on their phone”
  • “Tonight I got my first ever phone alert from the national weather service.  kinda weird/scary”

If you’ve gotten one of these alerts, you might be wondering what’s going on.  Here’s a quick guide:

1) Wireless Emergency Alerts are the result of work by your wireless carrier, the FCC, FEMA and some other government agencies.  FEMA has created the network and the carriers (Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, etc.) are cooperating.

2) The alerts go to phones that fit into these categories:

– First, they are capable of getting the messages.  Older phones may not get them.  Even some smartphones don’t get them.

– Second, the phone is in the range of towers selected for the message.  The messages are supposed to go based on where you are.  So if you get a flash flood warning, that’s supposed to be in the area you are in.

– Third, you didn’t turn off (or you did turn on) the messages.  Not every carrier turns on all the messages by default, though we think that most do.

3) The messages are supposed to be about an emergency.  Mostly right now, they are coming from the National Weather Service and some state Amber Alert agencies. But local governments can send messages, too, once they are approved by FEMA, and over 150 counties have signed up.   The rules, according to FEMA, is that they have to be about an imminent threat to life or property.  So if you get a message, it’s about something important to someone.

4) The messages are short (90 characters).  So some of them are pretty cryptic.  Check the news if there’s not much detail.

5) The messages don’t cost you anything directly.  But some of them might cost you some sleep (many reports of noisy alarms).

6) The President can send messages too.  As far as we know, he hasn’t done that yet.

7) You can turn off the messages that come from everyone other than the President.

If you live in one of several thousand counties or cities that have signed up for an emergency notification system (brand names such as Hyper-Reach, Cassidian, Everbridge, etc.), you can also get text (SMS) messages or a phone call when there’s an emergency situation.  Since every community has their own website, we’re sponsoring a new website called the US National Emergency Alert Registry (www.usnear.org).  It will be ready in a few weeks.  Please sign up.




Demographics, Emergency Notification and Wireless Only: Case Study #2

We were saddened to see the news of a teenager killed in a drive-by shooting last week.  Since we don’t know the detailed circumstances of that tragedy, this article is not a commentary on the specific incident, although it is inspired by this story and we’ll use some of the specifics to illustrate the points we want to make.

According to news reports, the local sheriff’s office made Emergency Notification calls to about 4,000 numbers in the area, asking residents to report any helpful information for the investigation.  This particular county is about 36% “wireless only” with no landline at home, according to our estimates, so we’d guess that their target area has about 6,000 households and the the ENS calls would have missed about 2,000 potential homes they would otherwise have liked to call. That’s assuming they are calling their ALI database of landline telephones.  (We looked up their emergency notification sign-up page and it wasn’t clear to us, but again, we’re trying to generalize and the specifics are not too important.)

Because the victim was a teenager, the reach of an ENS system would be a little better, since the parents would be a little older.  But even 45-55 year olds are switching to “wireless only”.  So that 36% might really be closer to 25 – 30%.  That’s still a lot of potential witnesses.

And if the victim had been a young adult, say someone in their 20’s, the percentage of “wireless only” would be much higher.  As high as 60% – 70% in some parts of the US.

So the reach – and therefore the effectiveness – of so called “reverse 911” systems varies a lot by demographics.  And the impact is just going to get bigger. By 2015, over half the country will have no landline.

And the circumstances here do not lend themselves to a Wireless Emergency Alert.

Inspired at NENA: Mapping, 911 and the shift to “wireless only”

Out on the NENA exhibitor floor talking to vendors, there’s a lot of discussion about mapping integration with the ALI/ANI database.  While that’s understandable, there’s a tsunami coming that could make the ALI/ANI database almost irrelevant in just 10 short years.

I’m talking about the shift to “wireless only” households.

911 centers are already used to having most of their calls coming from mobile phones (70% is the number I hear a lot.)  What happens when that’s over 90%?

The NIH and CDC have been doing a survey every year for the past 10 years showing that we’ve gone from a country where almost every home (93%) had a landline to one where just under 60% do today.  (Their data is a year behind, so that’s our extrapolation for 2013.)

If you assume the rate of change stays constant, we’ll get to the point that over 90% of homes are wireless-only by 2113.

So do the math.

If about 60% of households generate 30% of 911 calls from their landline number today, what percentage will come when less than 10% of households have landlines?  A highly simplistic extrapolation gets us to less than 5%.  So under these admittedly speculative calculations, we could be at the point that 95% of 911 calls come from cell phones.  (If they are calls at all, and not SMS, etc.)

Wild numbers, but well worth thinking about.

The demographics of “wireless only” and its impacts

The wildfires in Colorado provide a good opportunity to discuss how demographics shape the impact of the trend to “wireless only” on emergency notification systems.

Although we haven’t studied the geography in great detail, based on photos and news reports, the homes involved this tragedy are single family dwellings, many of them are upscale and many are also second homes.  That means the people affected are probably going to be mostly older, higher income, higher education, white, and families with children.

Or, from another perspective, the people least likely to be “wireless only”.

Although the shift away from landlines is affecting every demographic the CDC tracks, upper income, older families in owned homes are at least twice as likely to have a landline at home as other folks.  So it’s likely that the incidence of “wireless only” among the homes affected by these wildfires half what it is for the average population.  Based on our estimate that Jefferson County, CO is 49% wireless-only, about 75% of the affected homes still have landlines.

What this means is that emergency notification systems will still do well in situations like this.  But it also suggests that we cannot assume they will do as well in areas with younger people who are renters.  So an emergency message sent to a high-density area in Denver warning of a toxic chemical spill or an active shooter will reach a much smaller percentage of the population than a message sent to an older, more suburban or rural area.

If you want help understanding how demographics might affect your community’s emergency notification system, just ask.  Send us an email at jveilleux@ashergroup.com.  We’ve got lots of data we’d love to share.

Why “wireless only” is such a threat to Emergency Notification Systems

It’s no secret that the conventional landline telephone is headed to extinction.

Using some of the same data we study, USTelecom – a telecom trade association – projects that “switched landline” phones will be present in only about 25% of US household by the end of the year.  Many of the remaining households have some other kind of landline – mostly VOIP phones.  But USTelecom thinks that 43% of homes will be “wireless only” by the end of 2013.

Here’s another scary number.  At current growth rates, by the end of the decade, we project that less than 15% of households will have a landline of any kind.

Emergency notification systems that call or text people depend on getting their phone numbers from the local phone company, but these numbers are usually only available for landlines.  Without the wireless numbers, a large and growing percentage of the population is going to be missed.

To offset this problem, almost every community has a local registration page for citizens to provide their numbers.  But these pages – and the marketing campaigns that promote them – usually get less than 10% of the population.  And that’s generous.  One ENS provider’s statistics imply a sign-up rate of about 2%.

Missing 40% or more of the population is simply not acceptable.  This is why we’re totally focused on finding solutions to the “wireless-only” problem.

Wireless Emergency Alerts” are a good start, but limited.  There’s much more that needs to be done.

County Estimates Available for “Wireless Substitution”

We’re offering some data that we think will be helpful to county public safety folks.  It provides county-level estimates showing the percentage of people that don’t have a landline phone at home.

You can read the press release at http://www.prweb.com/releases/2013/6/prweb10832055.htm.

We think this can be really useful in assessing the reach of telephone-based emergency notification systems.   And beyond the assessment, figuring out how to solve the problem of reaching “wireless only” households.

It’s a complex problem, and one we’ll be exploring in the next many blog posts.

In the meantime, if you are a public safety agency, the data is free.  It shows what we think is the percentage of folks in your county that do not have a landline phone and how that compares to your state and the US.  And how it will change from now to 2015.

Just drop us an email with your county and agency name and we’ll send you the report.  The address is jveilleux@ashergroup.com.


Emergency Notifiers to Send Out Warnings in RecordTime™; Hyper-Reach Releases New Feature to Speed Alerts to Public

(PRWEB) May 02, 2013

To speed the delivery of urgent emergency notifications to the public, Hyper-Reach has developed RecordTime, a feature that allows public safety agencies to record the messages they want to send as quickly as possible to hundreds or thousands of telephones within a community.  The new feature provides a “record” button within the application, allowing a user to simply click, speak and send the newly recorded message, saving precious minutes and maximizing the effectiveness of emergency notification systems.

When emergency situations happen, public safety agencies usually have no time to lose.  Even a few seconds in time can be the difference between saving or losing a human life.  That’s why Hyper-Reach has released its newest advance in public notification systems called RecordTime.

RecordTime is a powerful new feature that allows agencies to send out mass audio messages by directly recording them on an agency’s PC work station and then sending those messages instantly.  With RecordTime, public safety personnel simply click a button on the Hyper-Reach dashboard to record and – using the microphone attached to the PC – record the message they want to send.  The recording is immediately stored and available to be used for notification calls to hundreds or thousands of people.

Before RecordTime, most public safety agencies using an emergency notification system would need to record a message, save it as a file, store it in the system and then send the message.  The entire process might take five minutes or longer, depending on the emergency notification provider.  Alternatively, some systems provide for recording using the telephone by calling a recording system.  In addition to the time involved in that process, recording by telephone can reduce the audio quality and make some recordings more difficult to understand.  RecordTime removes all these limitations and lets the agency click, speak and send the message in just seconds.

“We’re very excited about this new capability,” said Ricky Slack, 911 Director for Smith County, Tennessee.  “We love the Hyper-Reach system and have used it extensively during tornadoes and other emergencies.  We really use it on a daily basis and have integrated it into our internal operations.  So being able to speed up the message creation and delivery process enhances what is already a great system.”

Hyper-Reach is a state-of-the-art emergency mass  notification system designed specifically for public safety officials.  The system sends thousands of telephone calls, SMS text messages and emails to geographically targeted households in seconds.  A new feature, called Hyper-Reach Express, works with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to send broadcast messages to all mobile telephones in an affected area.

To find out more about Hyper-Reach and RecordTime, send email to info(at)ashergroup(dot)com or call the company at 855-266-8439.

 About Hyper-Reach

Hyper-Reach (http://www.hyper-reach.com) has over 12 years of experience in emergency messaging via its mass notification system.  Hyper-Reach sends messages via automated telephone calls, text messaging (SMS), email, and social media, such as Twitter.  Messages can be created by local personnel or automatically sent, depending on the emergency.  Other uses of Hyper-Reach include Amber alerts, toxic chemical warnings, and armed shooter alerts.  In addition to 911 centers, Hyper-Reach is used by law enforcement, educational institutions, and corporations.

For more information about Hyper-Reach, go to http://www.hyper-reach.com or call 855-266-8439 (855 2-NOTIFY).






This Week in Emergency Notification

We subscribe to a number of news services that give us stories about emergency notification throughout the US and the world.

And since some of it is interesting, this seems like a good opportunity to share.

Here’s the best of what we saw this week, which, coincidentally, was  National Severe Weather Preparedness Week:

– If you haven’t heard already, a Washington, PA city councilman put “Brian is gay” out on the local emergency alert system.  This story even made the Jimmy Kimmel Live show.   No word yet on whether “Brian” has responded;

 – A town in CO used their ENS to tell folks to stay in their homes during an arrest gone awry.  The messages were sent around 1AM on 2/23 as police sought a suspect who fired at officers, led police on a chase, and fled off on foot.

– A new service in India lets people text to a special number, which then dials a pre-defined list of 10 friends and family.

– Rand Paul’s filibuster was supposedly interrupted by an emergency alert.  Apparently the EAS alert was not about a drone strike, which was part of Paul’s reason for the 13 hour marathon speech;

– A 30-page report details the failures of emergency alert systems in the Waldo Canyon fire in CO.   About 40% of the messages went to voicemail and answering machines.

– We announced a program designed to help offset the Federal budget cuts called “sequestration”.  For 2013, we’ll guarantee 25% savings vs. any comparable ENS system to any government agency.